Balthus, The Mountain, 1937
This is the marvelous large-scale Balthus that is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was interesting to read these couple anecdotes in Nicholas Fox Weber’s fine Balthus biography:
What came Balthus’s way from the contemporary scene, he treated more as evidence of human folly. He and Setsuko opened their morning post in front of me. Looking at the announcements they received from the Center Pompidou and other showplaces of modernism, they acted as if it were all one big joke. Why deliberately create such ugliness? asked the count and countess. They named Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, and Duane Hanson as particularly beyond their comprehension. The only art worthy of a journey must of a caliber and excellence of another order.
This other anecdote is even more telling:
Shortly after I arrived at Rossiniere on my first visit, Balthus showed me a House & Garden with an article about a luxurious New York apartment in which one of his recent canvases had been hung near an Andy Warhol. He told me when the article had appeared several years earlier, “I was absolutely furious and was going to write Pierre that he should never sell any more paintings to Americans.” Balthus said that Pierre Matisse became so ill at just this time that the artist felt he could not make the request, but he had seriously intended to ban all further sales of his work on my side of the Atlantic–that they killed his work.
A quote from Balthus:
The story of my childhood is akin to this desire, “reactionary” in the true meaning of the word, to preserve traditions in order to be able to innovate and invent in turn… The world was never remade starting from nothing, but from reading, listening, and playing differently, with the inexhaustible legacy of those who preceded us.
I’ve seen many Balthus paintings over the years. I’ve never seen any that didn’t greatly reward careful study. I wonder who would ever say about a Warhol… that it repaid any study? What’s there to study? The Emperor’s New Clothes?
Balthus, when he was a 16 year old turned Rilke on to Piero della Francesca, loaning the poet a book on Piero by Hans Graber. Balthus went on the Piero trail when he was 18 years old in 1926, this at a time when Piero was all but unknown and unappreciated. As Fox Weber points out, in Ruskin’s 39 volumes on Italian art Piero rates no more than a single parenthetical comment.
One is left to imagine how in the world work of such astonishing genius as Piero’s could have been missed entirely by Ruskin. I believe I’ve seen most if not all of Piero’s works. This one at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan is one of the most supernatural and hypnotic paintings I’ve ever seen:
This is the one that transfixed Philip Guston, Piero’s magnificent Flagellation of Christ in Urbino: